This blog post looks at the use of the (((echo))) brackets meme on 4chan/pol/, the infamous imageboard’s most active subforum devoted to the ‘politically incorrect’. Apart from sprouting many successful harmless memes, 4chan is also effective in the proliferation of hateful content, like the anti-Semitic (((echo))) brackets, used to ‘mark’ Jewish people. While acknowledging the larger political reasons for the rising popularity of hateful memes like the (((echo))) brackets, this text focuses on the memetic dynamics within the language games taking place on /pol/ that promote hateful content in tandem with the normalisation of far-right ideology. Reason for this is that transgressive, tasteless, and ironical memes do boundary work for 4chan’s users (‘anons’) by infuriating or confusing the out-group, or, as they would say, they ‘trigger the normies’. While anons see themselves as keeping up with the vernacular innovations in memes, many see normies as hung-up on a symbols’ historical meanings — notoriously in relation to Nazi or anti-Semitic symbolism. To this end, anons may be understood as enacting a digital dualism in which fixed signs in the ‘real world’ become floating signifiers online. This nihilistic relativism allows what we call ‘memetic versatility’, where ‘fixed’ and ‘novel’ meanings are nonchalantly juxtaposed to attain (for them) humorous effects, presenting the tasteless meme maker with all kinds of possibilities for incongruous juxtapositions — think Nazi Pepe. Apart from the explicit extremists present on /pol/, this transgressive appeal is part of why the jokes on the board tend toward the toxic. At the same time, for those with an actual agenda, expanding the range of a taboo symbol or concept can help to open the Overton Window — what a notorious alt-right website calls “non-ironic Nazism masquerading as ironic Nazism”. The text concludes with a brief quantitative case study of the use of the (((echo))) brackets meme on /pol/ to reflect on the above.
In February 2017, a user commented on Sean Hannity’s Facebook page, vehemently slamming the appearance of yet another the talk show host on Hannity’s show: Geraldo Rivera. For speaking out against Trump’s border policy, the poster decried Riviera should take his “Liberal Butt ot CNN ABC CBS”, but more interestingly, accused him with the statement: “all you care about is the (((ILLEGAL MEXICANS)))” (see fig. 1). To the unaware, the three parentheses around ‘illegal mexicans’ might seem a stylistic device for emphasis. Those aware, however, recall the anti-Semitic meaning of the three characters. Referred to as triple parentheses, or the (((echo))) brackets, this textual meme found its origin as a sound effect in which reverb was applied to Jewish surname spoken out by guests on a popular alt-right podcast, after with members of the podcast’s forum translated the sound effect into its textual form. This way, it was used as a strategy to identify Jews in elite circles by placing the parentheses around Jewish-sounding surnames, a practice that the so-called alt-right refer to as ‘belling the cat’. In 2016, it was used to harass Jewish journalists similarly to how female journalists had been harassed around the Gamergate controversy in 2014. The practice then quickly popularised on 4chan, especially its ‘politically incorrect’ board, /pol/ (see fig. 2). In the aftermath of Gamergate, /pol/ had increasingly become a bastion of alt-right ‘ironic’ hate speech — this in spite of 4chan’s administrator actually having banned any discussion of Gamergate on the platform. As is well known, many amongst the online alt-right like to imagine themselves as ‘just trolling’ when confronted with their words, a disingenuous strategy that has been well critiqued. Considering this subcultural far-right history, what does the unusual appearance of the (((echo))) brackets on a mainstream space like Hannity’s Facebook page signify?
Considering its subcultural origin and popularity, the use of the (((echo))) brackets by the Facebook poster might symbolise a blurring between vernacular of usually separated online publics. The relative absence of borders within the digital sphere means that instead of enforced boundaries, vernacular discourse and memes can form the boundaries for participation in subcultural communities, representing in-group knowledge and norms. As such, the ‘success’ of said Internet memes can not only be found in their spreadability, but also to what extent they form ‘intracultural objects’ that can evoke complex meaning with simple signs within the community, representing markers of in-group belonging. Indeed, a ‘successful’ meme in these communities is often seen as one that has been skillfully crafted and deployed in relation to community norms.
How memes can function as in-group markers can partly be explained by memetic logics. According to meme theorist Ryan Milner (2016), in reference to Tannen (1989), memes “balance ‘fixity’ and ‘novelty’”, meaning recognisable “prepatterned ‘vernacular’” is innovated with by mixing it with “novel” elements. This explains why certain meme ‘formats’ are successful: they offer a useful “fixed” pattern that allows for mixing of never-ending novel meaning. The fixed meaning of a meme pattern is often stable, making it understandable at first glance or with a quick Web search. For instance, the infamous Distracted Boyfriend format tells its own story. However, memes and their meaning in subcultural communities are often harder to pin down: the meme’s dominant meaning can either be obscure to trace, and moreover, the meaning of the meme can change rapidly when novel, creative iterations enter the shared awareness of niche communities. When enough ‘cycles’ of novel innovation occur, the fixed meaning is rendered increasingly opaque, or replaces the previous understanding altogether. For example, fig. 3 shows a particularly incomprehensible representation of a ‘fixed’ pattern, the webcomic “Loss”. Making original ‘Loss edits’ became a sport when people started innovating with abstractions and placing these in unlikely spots (e.g. in videogame worlds). The humour of the absurd minimalism hinges on the reader’s capacity to grasp the intertextual references. As such, to ‘get’ the newfound memetic iteration, one thus has to be up to speed with the cultural meaning with both the fixed prepatterns and the novel developments. This niche, shared communal knowledge increases the feeling of in-group belonging.
Consequently, when these subcultural markers spread to other spheres, the fixed meaning can be misread or accidentally reinterpreted by different publics. This confusion is most likely what happened with the unconventional use of the echo brackets on Hannity’s Facebook page. While the particular post is anecdotal, such confusion or reappropriation usually drives semantic change more generally. This means a meme can attain a completely new ‘fixed’ meaning, or else the lack of stable meaning will render it a floating signifier.
Aspects of the above memetic dynamics arguably apply to all successful Internet memes, which might even be understood more generally as an accelerate form of language evolution. Of interest here, however, is how antagonistic online communities employ ‘memetic logic’ in the service of ‘politically incorrect’ humor which seems to appear as a new and resilient kind of hate speech, one which appears relatively undetectable to the untrained eye. Consider fig. 4: like the Loss edit above, it shows a minimalist version of the anti-Semitic “Happy Merchant” meme, which in its usual form depicts a grossly stereotypical Jewish person, cunningly rubbing his hands.
Credited to the political cartoonist Nick Bougas, the original version of this image has been referred to as “the most widely seen anti-Semitic image in history”. (Indeed, a Google image search for “jew” consistently returns this image towards the top of the page, and Google’s Vision API is able to connect the image to 4chan.) While the Happy Merchant is said to have been intended as a satirical image, consistent with Bougas’ punk rock “Mondo” bad-taste style, variations of the image are amongst the most widely used memes on /pol/. In considering this particular minimalist version, even if the two lines in fig. 4 would be completely ambiguous to an outsider, anons on 4chan/pol/ recall the full image and whatever anti-Semitic, conspiratorial ideas they associate it with, based on the mere two lines. As one anon reacts: “I’m actually impressed with how ingrained that imagine is in my head that I can identify it almost instantly even in this minimalist form”.
Tasteless markers of distinction
The extreme popularity of despicable memes like the Happy Merchant and the (((echo))) brackets on /pol/ seems to suggest that the politics of ‘distinction’ work similarly with respect to tastelessness as they do with taste. While the total lack of propriety here is shocking, the idea of a culture defining itself by its distastes was articulated by Bourdieu (1996), for whom “tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgusts provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others”. These repulsive and reactionary expressions problematize cultural studies’ celebration the ‘agency’ of fan culture. Thomas Frank, in his critique of the American tradition of cultural studies, referred to this celebratory mode as “the signature scholarly gesture of the nineties” (2002), an approach whose hegemony may be seen to continue today in the field of American new media studies’ tendency to celebrate the progressive aspects inherent in participatory culture. If, however, we turn to the field of folklore studies, we find a more frank reckoning with the fact that folk culture often perpetuates bigotry. Here, the contemporary folklorist and historian of 4chan Whitney Phillips (2017) cites the foundational work of Alan Dundes, who argues that the archivist of folk culture “must include all aspects of human activity” (1965, 92) no matter how “repugnant and distasteful” (Dundes and Linke 1987, 29) as folklore is “always a reflection of the age in which it flourishes” (Dundes 1987, 12). In spite of this disciplinary imperative, Phillips is herself ambivalent about her own relationship with her object of study, 4chan, in light of the possibility that increased media attention has helped contribute to spreading alt-right hatred, what she refers to as the “oxygen of amplification” (2018). Recognizing this caveat, we consider it important to bring attention to how memes like the (((echo))) brackets and the Happy Merchant might function as what Phillips calls a “subcultural batsignal” (2015); signals only understood by the initiated.
It should be noted that an essential reason for the popularisation of a meme like (((echo))) brackets is the normalisation of far-right thought, a matter of ideology that we will not seek explore in any sort of detail in this current post. Rather, our argument here is that the memetic logics described above should also be understood as an essential component accounting for the success of the tasteless meme. As noted, an understanding of the shifts in the meaning of memes, including extremist ones, can stimulate in-group belonging. Bourdieu argued that such cultural dynamics, what he called “habitus”, formed adaptable systems of taste and disposition that in effect produced individuals actions toward a given object, regardless of conscious awareness.
We would not go so far. If someone does not understand that (((echo))) brackets are anti-Semitic, that person can and should be understood as an idiot — either a genuine idiot (as is likely the case of the commenter on Hannity’s Facebook page) or a disingenuous idiot (as is the case with anons using the meme). While this sounds like a criticism, many anons may well be proud of their idiocy. We should recall here that in its etymology, the idiot represented one who did not speak Greek. As such, Isabelle Stengers (2004) discusses the idiot as someone who took a stand against consensual reality. Indeed, in a manner not dissimilar to some of the more extreme elements of the antinomian 60’s counterculture, 4chan anons reject the consensus reality of “‘normies’ and ‘basic bitches’ who ‘don’t get’ the countercultural styles of the amoral subculture” (Nagle 2017, 107).
In light of this intentional amorality, extremist /pol/ memes such as the (((echo))) brackets offer the appeal of transgression. As with the flag of Kekistan, which is ‘iconically’ modelled on the Nazi Reichskriegsflagge, anons like to play with hate symbols to mock those whom they consider to believe that “the internet is serious business”. Hateful memes are thus excused by a logic of digital dualism, where the virtual is posed as a playground for consequence-free language games, and anyone who fails to understand the rules by mistaking such forms of expression for traditional extremism should be met with scorn and ridicule. While this ‘ironic’ relationship with language appears new, already back in 1946 Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of how anti-Semites played with discourse, engaging in forms of absurdity while their interlocutors were “obliged to use words responsibly”.
While 4chan trolls may be understood as essentially reactionary nihilists who believe in nothing other than lulz, a rhetorical mode that flourished on 4chan/b/, in the post-Gamergate era, /pol/ has increasingly become home to the reactionary essentialist who seems to believe in genetic determinism, though when pushed on their words, retains the old-skool troll’s defensive to be “just trolling”. Since it is supposedly assumed that nothing on /pol/ should be taken serious, racist jokes continue indefinitely without ever coming to any sort of punchline. Initially, 4chan’s administrator explicitly set up /pol/ to channel otherwise to syphon off undesirable discussion threads from others boards like /news/. At present, however, /pol/ stands as the most popular board on 4chan, whose bizarre and highly offensive style of irony has been copied by elements of the insurgent American far-right, some of whom like to refer to themselves as the alt-right.
Beyond the plausible deniability of the “just trolling” excuse, another obvious reason that 4chan has been embraced by the far-right is that, as is well-known, the imageboard excels in affording virality and vernacular innovation. 4chan ‘moves’ very quickly – threads are quickly purged from the website, meaning the website does not offer a straightforward way to ‘catch up’ with the latest developments, ‘producing’ highly engaged users. Furthermore, 4chan is anonymous, which means that if one wants to participate in the conversation, one has to demonstrate a degree of subcultural literacy, since speaking out of turn will likely result in getting brutally insult or else — and possibly worse — being ignored. As a result of this blend of affordances and practices, /pol/ drives many away while exhibiting a strong socialization effect on those who remain — referred to as “polarization effects” by Marwick and Lewis (2017, 18). Additionally, creativity and sensationalism helps one to be noticed in the fast-moving environment. These factors thus help to account for why 4chan is so productive of vernacular innovation, and arguably why /pol/ seems so productive of hate. Therewith, as with LOLCats in the past, we can imagine and expect 4chan to keep creating harmless and harmful memes that will spread out into social media at large. While there will inevitably be some translation errors in the process — as in the case of aforementioned Facebook post which applies an originally anti-Semitic slur to vilify Mexicans — we should thus remain aware of the continued resilience of 4chan’s vernacular innovations.
While inseparable from ideological factors, the popularisation of 4chan’s style of ‘ironic hate’ can in part be attributed to the versatility of a meme’s functional meanings, here referred to as memetic versatility. Memetic versatility drives change and variance in meaning, which can complicate the analysis of online hate through memetic logics, for instance when translation errors occur (as seen in the introduction). To understand these complications, we illustrate how wemetic versatility works on a number of levels.
Firstly, and most obviously, the extent to which a meme’s ‘format’ can be repurposed for ‘novel’ innovations makes it versatile and often drives its popularity. Many all too common meme formats like Is This a Pigeon?, Drakeposting, and the aforementioned Distracted Boyfriend can easily be rendered ‘relatable’ to broad publics and niche subcultures alike, depending on the novel expressions mixed in. It is then no surprise to see the roleplaying ‘meme stockbrokers’ of the subreddit r/MemeEconomy offering their investments as highly valuable “versatile formats”. As we have analysed in the images used on /pol/, more popular memes (like Pepe and Feels Guy) are used for more versatile means as ‘reaction faces’, as opposed to less-used single-purpose images like the Happy Merchant. Considering this versatility of use, a meme might be used harmlessly in one community, but offensively in another, complicating a generalised interpretation of the meme.
Secondly, memetic versatility points to the fact that previously fixed meaning can radically change when enough novel expression is attributed to it, replacing or living alongside the original format of the meme. This repurposing is easier when the ‘fixed’ meaning is not widely known yet. For instance, the early uses of ‘Kekistan’ on /pol/ show it was used as yet another way to say ‘kek’, before its later connotation as a fictional state. ‘Kek’ itself followed a path from simply meaning ‘lol’ to also referring to an ancient Egyptian deity. From the perspective of evolutionary linguistics, the fact that sign-vehicles can find novel uses contributes to their overall resilience. Since ‘old’ and ‘new’ uses of a meme can overlap, memes repurposed for hateful goals might blur with older, innocent uses (e.g. when old-skool ‘Feels Good Man’-Pepe blurs with his later Nazi reinterpretation).
Thirdly, memetic versatility may be also be seen as a measure of how many concurrent different audience uses it can simultaneously sustain. This versatility as varying meanings for varying audiences can have many reasons. For instance, a difference in ‘meme literacy’, i.e. a lack of intertextual awareness, can lead to translation errors – as seen in the ‘incorrect’ use of the (((echo))) brackets on Hannity’s Facebook page. Phillips describes how different readings of the hugely popular Advice Animal meme proliferated online, to the frustration of 4chan anons, who considered their use and interpretation of the meme to be canonical (2015, 141). It is perhaps an attempt to inoculate against such process of recuperation when anons on /pol/ turn to making memes that can not but be seen as offensive. It is here then that we turn to the notion of transgressive versatility.
While the above dynamics of memetic versatility may be thought to apply as much to cat pictures as to (((echo))) brackets, the latter adds the dimension of transgression. In computational-evolutionary sense, transgressive memes at once reduce and expand their versatility. For example, once Nazi versions of Pepe the Frog started trending on /pol/, the meme could be used both as a marker for tasteless distinction similar to the punks’ use of the swastikas in the mid-late 70’s, as well as an expression of sincere extremism — the latter especially after it was registered as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. In addition to becoming a taboo, Pepe thus seemed to become more versatile since it now appealed to trolls and extremists alike, while the intent remained vague. At the same time, its versatility may have diminished as it scared off those concerned with propriety. Since incongruous juxtapositions are essential to humour, transforming the feckless “feels good man” Pepe into Nazi Pepe was considered hilarious by many. In this light, the ridiculously offensive Happy Merchant image is at once transgressive and presents the erstwhile meme maker with all kinds of possibilities for incongruous juxtapositions. However, as summarised by an anon in fig. 5, the dangerous games games that /pol/ plays with language not only creates an aura of indeterminacy, but also the possibility for dangerous misinterpretation; thereby adding to the appeal. We refer to this blur of ‘edginess’ and extremism in use as transgressive versatility.
The methodological challenges of transgressive versatility
Memetic versatility, complicated by transgressive versatility, poses a challenge for researching vernacular in subcultural communities, since a significant time commitment is required to keep up with newly rising signs, memes, and keywords, as well with any semantic change of already existing cultural artefacts. As such, some degree of ethnography is required to become familiar with communal norms and language of spaces like 4chan.
In addition to qualitative pathways, quantitative approaches also offer ways to analyse the meaning of usually opaque online speech. One approach to understand the shifts in meaning of certain memes is by analysing how they are used, drawing from Wittgenstein’s claim that use is constitutive of meaning. Consistently similar use might point to objects predominantly fixed in meaning, while varying use might point to temporally versatile uses or floating signifiers. However, the use of words is not always presented clearly (Wittgenstein 1958, 6), nor is it clear how ‘use’ should be understood. As a potential answer, Wittgenstein’s remarks on meaning through use can be reformed by relating it to context. Famously, the linguist John Rupert Firth claimed:
The placing of a text as a constituent in a context of situation contributes to the statement of meaning since situations are set up to recognize use. As Wittgenstein says, ‘the meaning of words lies in their use.’ The day to day practice of playing language games recognizes customs and rules. You shall know a word by the company it keeps! (Firth 1962, 11; italics added)
Since many memes take form as textual objects, or “memetic phrases” (Milner 2016, 17), Wittgenstein and Firth’s general linguistic principles could be applied to the use of these memetic phrases. (The question videos and images is more difficult, since the meaning is often a subtext within the images). So, to answer the question “what does a meme mean?”, one may also ask, “how is a meme used?”. This quantifiable approach is eased by the the fact that memes are traceable markers. Indeed, a meme’s ‘prepatterning’ means that a (somewhat) stable pattern can be identified across time and digital spheres.
The (((echo))) brackets form a particularly interesting marker of meaning. Though less ‘versatile’ in its format than images like Pepe, the brackets can still be considered a meme since it follows memetic logics in offering a fixed frame that conveniently allows the changing inclusion of novel meaning. Since it uses a typical series of characters, its use is easily traceable, and could thus reflect on how versatile it is employed. As such, what follows is a brief case study of the use of the triple parentheses on 4chan/pol/, in order to identify its memetic versatility by asking: “how are the (((echo))) brackets used?”.
Tracing the (((echo))) brackets
The most obvious way to quantitatively analyse the expressions of the (((echo))) brackets meme is by identifying what words are included within the parentheses. Fig 6. Shows the most used words within the triple parentheses per month, showing how versatile and variable its use is over time. The most used cases are either implicit referrals, or grossly generalistic; (((they))) is the most popular use, with around four thousand uses on average per month. (((them))) and (((their))) follow on the second and third spot. (((you))) comes after this, mostly directed to fellow anons, indicating the widespread suspicion of anons that 4chan is being manipulated by “shills” and special interest groups. Since the vertical bars in fig. 6 are relatively stable, the (((echo))) brackets meme is not ‘versatile’ in the sense that it radically switches dominant uses over time.
However, as fig. 7 illustrates more clearly, the (((echo))) brackets mee can be considered versatile in another sense, since there is a long tail of ‘novel’ meaning (i.e. the words inside the parentheses) that is matched with the ‘fixed’ pattern (the parentheses themselves). As such, the (((echo))) brackets are a versatile means to insinuate conspiracies on a large host of actors and groups. Indeed, fig. 7 shows the usefully vague referents like “they”, usual suspects like “soros” and “kushner”, but also unlikely entrants like “trump” and “alt-right”. To indicate how many mental loops (((alt-right))) offers in one convenient package, one has to understand it is used by far-right actors to indicate the conspiracy of ‘controlled opposition’; strategically placed actors by the FBI, ‘nwo’, or the ‘deep state’ that function as useful scapegoats for a larger group. As such, even actors that would be associated to the in-group by some anons (like Trump) can easily be encapsulated by the triple parentheses, meaning almost anything within the parentheses could be twisted to make sense in the alternative universe of 4chan/pol/.
Who are (((they))), exactly?
Since the implicit referral of (((they))) is the most common use of the (((echo))) brackets on /pol/, it is worth investigating what exactly is meant by (((they))). With text mining techniques like word embeddings, it is possible to fetch the words that have the most similar context as (((they))). Techniques like word2vec (Mikolov et al. 2013) can thus determine what words have the same use — and following Firth, the same meaning — as (((they))). In that sense, the implicit referrals are rendered more explicit. The table below shows words with the most similar contexts in February 2017 on /pol/ using word2vec.
Table 1: word2vec cosine similarities with (((they))), skip-gram, window size 5, word threshold 200
As the table shows, the versatility of the (((echo))) brackets mostly lies in the fact that they are used similarly to words alluding to anti-globalism (“globalists”, “(((media)))”, “nwo”/New World Order), and more explicit anti-Semitic keywords (“jew”, “goy”, “kikery”). While it can safely be assumed that most anti-globalism has an anti-Semitic subtext on /pol/, it is nonetheless interesting that (((they))) is closer to anti-globalism (read: implicit anti-Semitism) than explicit anti-Semitism — most likely because words like “globalist” are used similarly to (((they))) as implicit anti-Semitic dog whistles. Nonetheless, the similarity to anti-globalism keywords warns that the aforementioned ignorant idiots might miss the anti-Semitic origin of the meme.
The appearance of “thalmor” is telling in relation to transgressive versatility, since it alludes to the blur between transgressive play and politics on /pol/. The Thalmor are a fictional ruling class in the videogame Skyrim. By combining the pattern of the triple parentheses with a novel expression drawing from videogame culture, anons “roleplay anti-Semitism”, blending play with hate, and vice versa. This confusion is well represented in fig. 8, where it is unclear whether the anon means what is written, or if he is ironically performing a mockery of the conspiracism on /pol/. This further adds to the (((echo))) brackets meme’s versatility: it can both be used as serious accusations as well as transgressive trolling — although, naturally, the latter is not less harmful since it will still function as extremism, as described above.
Rebuking digital dualism
Considering the (((echo))) brackets’ versatile long tail, their implicit referrals, and their occasional trollish use, the obscured meaning of the meme might be prone to translation errors by genuine idiots, as seen in the introduction. While its origins are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, particularly its use as anti-globalist might blur its initial purpose for those that are unaware. Of course, the muddling of the meme’s meaning does not excuse it use, but rather points to the inherent dangers of the popularisation of far-right symbols, whose ‘normiefication’ could reinforce the propagation of far-right thought. Nonetheless, the fairly constant use of the triple parentheses over time implies its proprietors — at least on /pol/ — have a fairly similar and ‘fixed’ understanding as an anti-globalist and anti-Semitic bat signal.
This last point is notable since, in relation to the anons’ nihilistic digital dualism, its stability of use generates its own historically ‘grounded’ semantics that can be considered as contrasting the semantic relativity anons promote. As such, rendering visible the meme’s connection to both implicit and explicit anti-Semitism (e.g as done with word embedding techniques above) makes it easier to dismiss the use of the meme at point-blank, countering the digital dualism that might treat transgressive memes like the (((echo))) brackets as floating signifiers due to their digitally native origin. These empirically backed counter arguments are not likely to have an effect in /pol/, which is beyond the pale, but could arguably be used to hold accountable those who might adopt hateful memes in the mainstream. In that regard, we would conclude that if the extremist meaning of a meme can be ‘extracted’ from its dominant use online, then /pol/ anons will find it more difficult to pull their idiotic bullshit.
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